Make Custom Fabric with Surface Design

Quilters are a creative bunch and it was only a matter of time before the curiosity of new possibilities led to an explosion of surface design on quilts. Although many art quilters and mixed-media artists have been using these techniques on quilts and textiles for a long time, the availability of instruction, supplies, and inspiration have never been greater for those who are new to it.

What is surface design?

Designs by Rebecca Drury and Yvonne Drury. Learn custom fabric printing and painting techniques with The Printed Pattern Book
Designs by Rebecca Drury and Yvonne Drury.

Surface design differs from stitching, embroidering, and embellishing just like it sounds—something is applied to the surface of the fabric to alter or enhance it. Printing, painting, and stamping are examples of surface design techniques.

It is fun and easy to make your own custom fabric for use in quilts and other projects. You might like your results so much you’ll frame them as beautiful pieces of textile art.

Fabric printing, fabric painting, and stamping are happy triplets of the same family, the family of DIY and experimentation, and many times they work together. You might paint a design onto a board or gelatin plate and print the image on fabric. Or daub textile paint onto a rubber stamp and press the image on cloth. Paint directly applied to fabric can be manipulated and “removed” with a tool like a comb or chopstick.

There are so many ways to use these techniques to design your own fabric. Many quilters and textile artists are fond of printing on fabric, a great choice if you are intimidated about painting freehand.

Surface Design Techniques: Art Cloth Book
What is surface design all about? This comprehensive book covers it all, from painting and printing to stenciling, and more. Beginner to advanced, this is one resource no fiber artist should be without! Order the book or download instantly.

Fabric Printing, Painting and Stamping Ideas:

Silk screening has been around for many years and provides beautiful results. But that is just one form of printing on fabric. Thermofax® screens are popular with many textile artists. You can create your own screens if you have a Thermofax machine or you can purchase them. They are widely available on the Internet. These screens are similar to silk screens but without the box frame that holds the fabric taut. Instead, the Thermofax is a plastic-like screen that is more rigid than silk but still flexible, and you hold it in place when you make an image.

Many artists like to tape their Thermofax screens with a border of duct tape. This provides both a spot for you to hold onto the screen and prevents the screen from curling. It’s also a convenient place to place thickened dyes or fabric paints prior to dragging them across the screen.

How to print on fabric with a Thermofax screen:

  • Hold the screen firmly on the fabric along a taped edge of the screen.
  • Squeeze thickened dye or fabric paint onto the taped edge you are holding and drag the paint across the screen, from one end to the other. A squeegee works great but you can use an old credit card or hotel “key” as well. You may need to make more than one pass. Try a light hand on your first pass and a firmer touch with a second or third.
  • Before lifting the screen off of the fabric, gently lift up a corner of the screen with your free hand (keep holding firmly to the screen with the other) to test whether you have a good impression.

Pre-made stencils also work and are available at craft stores, quilt shops, and art supply stores. Options abound on the Internet as well. You can even make your own stencils with freezer paper and iron them onto fabric. You can apply thickened dye or fabric paints with a dauber, cosmetic sponge, paintbrush, cotton ball, your fingers–use your imagination!

While you’re at it, try applying thickened dye or fabric paint directly onto fabric—no screen or stencil required!—using a variety of objects. Household items like sea sponges or crumpled up things like paper, foil, or plastic add lots of interesting texture to your surfaces. Use a paintbrush or sponge brush to paint freehand—you don’t have to be Picasso to make shapes, designs, and motifs that are simple and fun. Relax and enjoy experimenting with fabric painting ideas.

TIP: Consider using a bleach paste or color remover, too, especially on dark fabric. You’ll be surprised by what colors sometimes lie beneath that black or navy top coat! Do use caution with these materials, however. Always work in a well-ventilated area and follow the manufacturer’s directions closely.

Stamping is another option for applying paint or thickened dye to fabric. Stamps can be found in stationery and art supply stores as well as on the Internet. You can carve your own stamps from material designed specifically for this purpose or use potatoes, erasers, soft wood, or other handy objects around the house.

Printmaking supplies such as brayers are universally available but think outside the box for fun or recycled tools to add to your collection like potato mashers, corrugated cardboard, bubble wrap, plastics and cans from your recycling bin—the options are almost endless! Be sure to keep your art tools separate from any household utensils, however. Once that potato masher becomes a stamping tool for custom fabric printing, it should never return to the kitchen!

Merge printing with painting on fabric by making monoprints. Paint a design on a homemade gelatin plate or a Gelli Arts™ gel printing plate and then place your fabric on top of the plate. Rub the back of the fabric with a brayer or your hands to make a print. Remove the fabric and enjoy your handiwork!

Custom Fabric Mark Making: Adventures in Surface Design
Adventures in Surface Design with Kerr Grabowski
Learn the language of mark making with this workshop, including designing a pattern, creating simple backgrounds, and building on your work. This video is the perfect way to learn about fabric printing and how to paint on fabric.
Order the DVD or download instantly.
Paint and Print Fabric: Surface Design WorkshopSurface Design Workshop with Ginny Eckley
Artist Ginny Eckley is ready to help you explore printing on fabric using screen printing, resist dyeing, fabric manipulation and more. Learn how to design, dye and print fabric for one-of-a-kind fabric.
Order the DVD or download instantly.

There are myriad ways to make custom fabric for your quilts that we haven’t mentioned—wax or glue resists, fabric manipulation, rust transfer, paper lamination, pencil and pen, sun printing, rubbing, and dyeing to name just a few—but we’ll leave them for you to explore as your interest and skills build.

We hope you try a few of these ideas to design your own fabric and have fun!

“Play is a valuable component of making and in my mind making is everything.” – Jane Dunnewold



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Surface Design